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Powerful Insights and Wisdom from Top Middle-Market CEOs: Leadership as a Skill and the Value of Listening

In Leadership Resources by Brandt A. HandleyLeave a Comment

On ROI’s Into the Corner Office podcast, we have interviewed over 150 leading middle-market CEOs from companies across industries, and the advice and wisdom they have shared with us is unparalleled. We are excited to share some of these insights with you in a new form!

Leadership is Learned and Cultivated

When we think of highly successful leaders, there is often an impression or an assumption that leadership is an intuitive, innate quality. For most people, however, the reverse is true: leadership is a skill that is learned and cultivated over years and decades of practice and trial and error, especially when the transition to management comes following a quite different role.

For instance, David Abeles, CEO of TaylorMade Golf, told me he was “an unmitigated disaster” when he first began managing people because in his case he went from being an individual contributor to a manager of a team, and “When you’re an individual contributor out in the field as a sales rep, you’re responsible for really one thing: your performance with your customer base and support of the customer and the company objectives.” When I asked him what he learned, his answer was simple: it’s not about you, the boss, but developing your team. “It’s really about how you can influence and support others in achieving the objectives that ultimately you as a manager are responsible for.”

When I interviewed Avi Kahn, now a member of the Hilti Group’s Executive Board (but was CEO of Americas at the time of our podcast), it was clear that he possesses a natural inclination for leadership, but he also credits the training he received through Hilti to help him grow as a leader because, as he notes, in the beginning of his career he led a lot “based on intuition, and [his] intuition wasn’t always wrong…but [he] lacked some fundamentals.” Good leadership training and years of experience can help even the most gifted leaders to grow.

Listening is Key

When Robert Martichenko, an Executive Leader with Transplace/LeanCor (who was CEO of LeanCor at the time of our podcast recording), was starting out, he remembers “a leader once taking [him] for a walk and saying, Robert, you’ve got two ears and one mouth. So, what should you be doing more of?” As Robert notes, listening often goes hand-in-hand with humility: “When we first become leaders, we think our job is to somehow make people think that we’re the smartest person in the room and have all the answers. And that’s just simply not the case. As we learn and grow, we learn to try to listen more, to try to be humble.”

Michael Hughes, CEO of Elevation Labs, feels similarly about developing the skill of really listening to become a more effective leader. In his case, it was especially important because he was managing people much older than he was, and he told me, the key thing was “To learn to be humble … to learn how to listen and pause. What experiences people have, what background, the diversity of thought really always lends itself to a better solution in the end.”

For Michael Castagna, CEO of MannKind Corp., becoming a more effective leader meant not only listening more but changing how and when he communicated. He told me that he’s learned to listen more and think out loud a little less, because “In a CEO, people want good leadership. They want clear direction.” He has also changed his communication style–as a night owl, he used to work into the early hours of the morning until he received feedback from his team that waking up with twenty emails is stressful. Now, Mike still sends emails, but fewer in general and during daylight hours whenever possible, and better yet he tries to meet in person because email often falls short. “We think because we sent something on email, it’s done, and we check the box and that’s right. And that’s really a poor way of executing communication.”

Leadership is a Journey 

Whether growing as a leader means formal learning to acquire tools and methods to manage teams more effectively or cultivating a talent to listen and be humble–or both!–leadership is a journey and very few people get it right every time. If you would like to hear more stories of CEO leadership journeys, you can find the full archive of Into the Corner Office episodes here or wherever you listen to podcasts.


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